Modified: June 21, 2021 9:03am
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz was joined by Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-26) and members of the Erie County Legislature’s Majority Caucus today at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens to unveil a far-reaching re-investment and spending plan using the first tranche of funding awarded to Erie County under President Biden’s American Rescue Plan (“ARP”). The “Reinvest in Erie’s Neighborhoods and Employ our Workforce (“RENEW”)” Plan (“the Plan”), presented to the Erie County Legislature this week, utilizes an initial award of $89,223,547 in ARP State and Local Recovery funding for 2021 for a wide array of investments in capital improvements, initiatives to promote and support small businesses, the restoration of some county positions cut during the June 2020 deficit remediation plan and 2021 Budget, major investments in the county Parks’ system, the creation of an Office of Health Equity in the Department of Health, and much more.
The Plan has been carefully designed in accordance with guidance from the U.S. Department of Treasury to align with the federal government’s goals of investing in state and local governments who lost revenue and made cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the $89.2 million in ARP funding, $47,554,040 is available for general county spending based on the Treasury Department’s revenue loss formula. The remaining $41,669,507 in funding can only be spent on designated ARP categories including water, sewer and broadband projects, premium pay, and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic impacts.
“The COVID-19 pandemic had widespread negative effects in Erie County, far beyond the public health ramifications of the virus. Over 1,900 Erie County residents died from COVID-19, thousands more fell ill with it to varying degrees and the ripple effects on our community were staggering, from business to education and numerous other fields. Now, thanks to President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Schumer, and Congressman Higgins and his Democratic Congressional counterparts we will be able to RENEW Erie County, regaining and surpassing the momentum we were experiencing before the pandemic struck,” said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. “This funding presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make major one-time investments in our county and make our community a better place for all. The RENEW Plan is carefully considered, fiscally responsible, well within the guidelines for funding usage set by the U.S. Treasury Department, and will be a big financial shot in the arm for Erie County.”
“The pandemic presented unthinkable challenges. Businesses suffered, families sacrificed, and local governments were forced to divert attention to critical safety needs depleting existing resources,” said Congressman Higgins. “County Executive Poloncarz led Erie County through a very dark time, and he has established a plan to build a brighter future for County residents as we reach the other side. The RENEW plan utilizes federal resources provided through the American Rescue Plan to lay a foundation for a stronger community through smart investments in water, road, sewer, park and human infrastructure.”
In addition to direct aid, the passage of the ARP led New York State to reverse state aid withholdings of 20% and to restore aid withheld in the previous fiscal year, leading to a positive variance of $35.8 million after the usage of some state aid withholding set-aside in the 2021 consolidated borrowing resolution.
The RENEW Plan will make possible numerous investments countywide:
• Capital Improvements: A number of upcoming or overdue capital projects are funded in the Plan, including an additional $5 million in pay-as-you-go highway funding, a new highway barn for the Harlem District, repairs to the façade of the District Attorney’s Office, and the SUNY Erie City Campus roof.
• Community Aid: The COVID-19 pandemic created financial challenges for many areas’ institutions. The Plan includes support for entities traditionally supported by Erie County including the Botanical Gardens, Convention Center, Naval and Servicemember’s Park, and the Workforce Investment Board as well as a wide array of support for improvements in various municipalities.
• Business Promotion: The federal government provided two additional rounds of Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) Loans (convertible to grants) in late 2020 and early 2021. With a strong economic recovery already underway, the Plan calls for a promotion-based approach to encourage local shopping and small business support, rather than direct cash assistance, with $2.08 million in small business promotion allocated in the Plan for this purpose.
• Park System Investment: The Plan makes major investments of approximately $14.3 million in Erie County parks to ensure they are in the best possible shape for residents and also invests in some long-overdue projects including the rehabilitation of the historic Wendt Beach mansion and stables. Among other targeted projects are Chestnut Ridge Casino accessibility improvements, several Chestnut Ridge Park comfort station renovations, restoration of the Como Lake Park Lighthouse, shelter and comfort station renovations at Ellicott Creek Park, restroom renovations at Grover Cleveland golf course, and shelter and amphitheater renovations at Emery Park, among other projects.
• Sewer and Water Investment: The Plan proposes using $31.3 million from the first tranche of ARP funding for projects related to the Erie County Sewer Districts (“ECSDs”). The infrastructure of the seven ECSDs includes over 5.8 million linear feet of sanitary sewer pipe, approximately 100 pumping stations, six water resource recovery facilities (i.e. wastewater treatment plants), and other appurtenances servicing portions of more than two dozen municipalities in Erie County. The county Division of Sewerage Management has identified significant needs for investment in this infrastructure throughout all seven ECSDs, with projects targeting infrastructure and operations enhancement, including energy reductions and pumping station eliminations; physical plant improvements at ECSD water resource recovery facilities and pumping stations; pumping and process equipment rehabilitation or replacements within numerous ECSD facilities; and sewer and manhole rehabilitation/replacement projects throughout all seven ECSDs.
“The Plan uses ARP funding for major investments in clean water in Erie County, protecting Lake Erie and benefitting not only county residents but everyone who uses water. Upgrading these aging systems is an expensive undertaking that would not be possible to the extent the Plan envisions were it not for the ARP funding, but with the funding we are able to build better, cleaner, more efficient sewer infrastructure that will serve for the next generation and beyond,” Poloncarz continued. “Elsewhere, additional investments in local communities and small businesses will help them continue their recovery from the pandemic, and major investments in our parks, roads and county facilities will revitalize them and build a better quality of life for residents. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a better Erie County for the future.”
Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Forestry Troy P. Schinzel added, “We are beyond thrilled at what this funding will do for the entire Erie County Parks System. The projects and staff funded from the RENEW Plan will accelerate the time it would have taken to address many of the needs across the Parks. This type of commitment shows once again the priority this administration places on its parks, and reinforces the reality that these parks are truly the peoples mandate, and that has never been more obvious than through this pandemic time.”
The Plan also furthers efforts to protect public health and restore the county workforce, which saw 287 positions eliminated as part of the June 2020 deficit remediation plan and 2021 Adopted Budget:
• Office of Health Equity: The Plan establishes staffing and budget lines for a new Office of Health Equity within the Erie County Department of Health. This Office is directly aligned with the stated goals of the ARP State and Local Recovery Fund’s mission to address disparities in Public Health Outcomes and will have a staff of 9 individuals including Epidemiologists.
• Position Restorations: Departments and independent offices submitted requests for restorations of some of the 287 cut positions, of which 107 were honored in the Plan. As the county’s financial situation improves and the economy continues to recover, providing departments and independent offices the resources they need to serve the public is a top priority that can be responsibly funded.
• New Positions: Based on lessons learned from the pandemic and to meet new operational goals, 26 additional new positions are included in the resolutions. 10 new positions are added to the Parks Department, along with new staff in the Division of Emergency Medical Services, Cancer Services Program, Purchasing, and the District Attorney’s Office.
• Budget Line Restorations: Many departments and independent offices included cuts to their budget lines as part of the 2021 adopted budget instructions. With the rapid return to normal operations, departments and independent offices have requested restorations to various lines in order to meet the public’s needs.
• Premium Pay for Essential Workers: Many county employees continued to report to work in person throughout the worst of the pandemic including the critical early days when little was known about the COVID-19 virus. In order to compensate these employees, the Plan provides a premium pay bonus of $5.00 per hour for every hour worked onsite from March 16th 2020 to June 26th 2020. Those dates align with the county’s shift to a work-from-home policy for non-essential personnel. Per federal guidance, only employees who earned less than 150% of the county’s median income in 2020 ($116,400), will be eligible for this premium pay. Based on initial calculations from the Department of Personnel, $6 million is set aside for these payments, which are aligned with U.S. Treasury Department guidelines for allowable use of these funds.
Poloncarz concluded, “The RENEW Plan addresses areas of critical need in Erie County and will be instrumental in our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. We are using this funding to protect our most precious resource, Lake Erie, and also to improve our infrastructure and build a better, healthier and more equitable community. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we are seizing it to create a better future for Erie county residents.”